“I think I’m maybe having a quiet nervous breakdown,” self-analyzes the titular heroine of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller’s fitfully diverting adaptation of her own middle-aged-woman’s growing-up novel. The eccentric wording of the line (in voiceover) typifies the best and worst of Miller’s chronologically looped, loopily populated tale: Its quirkily expressed mundanity lacks the immediacy or plausibility to draw the audience close to the privileged lit-world fuckups on screen. As she approaches 50, Pippa (Robin Wright Penn, valiant and real-world funny) begins to question her status as the universally liked but “enigmatic” wife of a New York publisher (Alan Arkin), a generation her senior. When hubby’s fragile heart forces a move to a Connecticut retirement community, she spends the time between taking his blood-pressure measurements getting lost in reveries of a mercurial youth (with Blake Lively playing an entirely un-Penn-like Pippa) with her tragic Dexedrine-fueled mother (Maria Bello) and artsy ’70s lesbians (led by photonovelist Julianne Moore, spectrally sans makeup).
Among a supporting throng of flamboyant types like Winona Ryder as a basket-case poet, Keanu Reeves plays convincingly low-key as a hard-luck convenience store clerk, yet his presence—and mammoth Christ tattoo on his bare torso—leaves little guesswork to be done on his eventual role in Pippa’s salvation. Some of it works as vignettes, but Penn’s central figure remains an enigma even among her third-act crises, where screaming, crying, betrayal, death, and a cathartic handjob all up the ante with accelerating desperation. Arkin’s welcome sandpaper-voiced sass keeps the domestic scenes afloat for a while until he’s given “You’re trying to bury me!” speeches, and he never seems more than fatherly with either Penn or Lively. Pippa Lee is conceived as a portrait of a woman’s long-delayed emotional blossoming, but its dopey, privileged-set fantasy winds up as obvious as crawling through Keanu’s open window.